In the Netflix anime series Knights of Sidonia, humankind is marooned in a spaceship 500,000-strong, refugees constantly on the run from shapeshifting aliens who destroyed Earth over 1,000 years ago. Both the patriarchy and poverty have been smashed. Advances in genetic engineering have allowed androgynous individuals to proliferate and asexual reproduction to become commonplace. Everybody (except the protagonist, a clone of his grandfather) can photosynthesize, drastically reducing the need to eat.
A plot twist near the end of the first season, released in 2014, revealed the existence of a shadow government called the Immortal Ship Committee which, in the last several centuries, had grown in number, from less than 10 members to just under 30, becoming more and more corrupt and self-serving. One of them, a 600-year-old woman named Kobayashi, captains the ship behind a mask, concealing her unaging, youthful complexion. She helps orchestrate fake news of alien encounters to justify the emergency powers of the committee’s undemocratic puppet government front.
The potential for undying tyrants or tyrannical bodies is one reason Leonard Hayflick, one of the world’s preeminent experts on aging (he was a founder of the Council of the National Institute on Aging), is against slowing down or eliminating the aging process. He has other reasons, too, like avoiding the father-daughter situation in Interstellar, where, due to the time-dilation effects of traveling in different gravitational fields, the daughter caught up to her father in years, and eventually died of old age first. “To slow, or even arrest, the aging process in humans is fraught with serious problems in the relationships of humans to each other and to all of our institutions,” he told Jordana Cepelewicz, a former editorial intern at Nautilus. “By allowing antisocial people—tyrants, dictators, mass murderers, and people who cause wars—to have their longevity increased should be undesirable…I would rather experience the aging process as it occurs, and death when it occurs, in order to avoid allowing the people who I just described to live longer.”
Despite his reservations about radical life-extension, Hayflick is a big proponent of studying aging at a more fundamental level, he said. “Most studies are either descriptive, studies on longevity determinants, or studies on age-associated diseases. None of this research will reveal information about the fundamental biology of aging. Less than 3 percent of the budget of the National Institute on Aging in the past decade or more has been spent on research on the fundamental biology of aging.” He’s a bit annoyed, for instance, that about a half of the National Institute on Aging’s budget goes toward researching Alzheimer’s disease. “The resolution of Alzheimer’s disease as a cause of death will add about 19 days onto human life expectancy,” he said. “I have suggested that the name of the institute be changed to the National Institute on Alzheimer’s Disease. Not that I support ending research on Alzheimer’s disease, I do not, but the study of Alzheimer’s Disease and even its resolution will tell us nothing about the fundamental biology of aging.”
Hayflick also has some advice on what we should teach scientists and the public about aging. “That education must include an understanding that the massive amount of research funds spent on studying the leading causes of death will not advance our understanding of the basic biology of aging,” he said. “It also must include an understanding that the study of longevity determinants (anabolic processes) will not reveal information about the basic biology of aging (catabolic processes). Finally, we need to educate scientists and the public, to support research on the differences between young cells and old cells that make the latter more vulnerable to age-associated diseases.”
You can watch the whole of our interview with Hayflick here.
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.
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This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in April 2018.